Words by Jonathan Stout
Pile- the trio of Rick Maguire, Kris Kuss, and Alex Molini -have evolved quite steadily throughout their prolific discography. For their newest album, All Fiction, the band found inspiration in the studio, working tirelessly to record, experiment, manipulate, mutate and layer the songs with lush orchestration, haunting synths and abstract textures.
After releasing three albums that have seen the band take more than a few hard left turns away from their older material, the band has now completed a reset of sorts. The aggressive riffs of earlier albums are now often replaced by an astute sense of space- the vocals at one moment sound like they’re yelled from the other side of the room and are hushed the next. Notes are held out longer. Arrangements increasingly minimalist.
However, no matter how different it may seem at first, the more you listen, the more you can feel the music’s intrinsic spiritual connection to Pile’s previous albums. As Wilco wrote the songs of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot traditionally, and then deconstructed them into abstraction, Pile are now doing similarly.
This new filter that Pile’s music is being presented through is transformative in the best of ways. The new music can be haunting, suspenseful, driving and atmospheric- sometimes all in one song. What’s most rewarding is that it gets more fascinating with each listen.
Off Shelf: The last few albums have seemed to be almost a reset for the band- exploring sounds and approaches that are at times in stark contrast to your earlier material. I wanted to ask about your album of stripped down versions of older songs, Songs Known Together, Alone. Was the inspiration/motivation for this album a product of the COVID-19 quarantine or was it created to help introduce your new direction?
Rick Maguire: It was both. At the start of the pandemic, I had already written a handful of songs that ended up on All Fiction. I wanted to stay busy while we couldn’t play together as a band but it didn’t feel right to release new material without the rest of the group. And because I had been performing solo throughout the existence of the project but didn’t have anything recorded that represented that – aside from the first two LPs released a decade prior – this seemed like the opportunity to do that. And yeah, it was also a chance to play around in the studio a little bit more by putting synths a little more forward as well as try out some other sonic textures the band hadn’t used that much up to that point.
OS: I really enjoyed the video elements that accompanied the Songs Known Together, Alone release. I was wondering where the solo performances were filmed and how long it took to put that together?
RM: The performances were filmed at Marcata Recording. The studio is located in a room inside of a large barn in upstate New York. I had asked Kevin McMahon, who tracked the record, if we could track things outside of the live room and in the barn area so that the performance of the record could be filmed in a more open and visually pliable space.
The inside-the-barn-but-outside-the-studio area serves as both a storage area for studio equipment and a lounge for the artists that record there. Kevin brought out all the mics to record there and Ryan Dight, Adam DePalma, and Jeff Fernandes arranged the space with lighting equipment and items available to film the whole performance. We did the whole record in a weekend: one day for setup, one day for the guitar set, and one day for the piano set.
OS: This band has always evolved, with no album sounding exactly alike, but your newest material is possibly the most different of all. Gone are the folkier aspects of your earliest albums and many of your post-hardcore/punk aspects have been tamed in exchange for space, texture and suspense. If your older albums were slasher movies, your new albums are the type of horror films where you constantly anticipate something jumping out at you. How do you regard your older material? Do you still enjoy it? How much material off of, let’s say Magic Isn’t Real or Dripping do you still play live?
RM: I wouldn’t say that I enjoy our older material, mainly because I associate enjoying music with intently listening to it, and I don’t listen to our older music without playing it – unless I’m trying to relearn something.
I’m proud that I’ve made as much music as I have and that it’s covered a somewhat wide range of ideas but all still has what I believe is a cohesive identity. I do enjoy playing the older stuff, that material lends itself to me being a little more expressive in a live setting, which I really appreciate. It’s nice to pepper old songs in with some of the newer stuff that we’ve released. While the old stuff may seem different from the newer stuff in a number of ways, I think that performing them side-by-side can be a fun way to try to illustrate that they’re cut from the same cloth. At the same time, the alternating between guitar-based and synth-based material keeps the set interesting for me. It used to be choosing somewhere from quiet to loud and now we have a third axis.
OS: Though there’s always been a certain edge of darkness to your music, it’s pretty much undeniable that the material has gotten increasingly ominous, gloomy and portentous. Is there anything that triggered this change?
RM: Using different sounds may have led me in that direction. Ie. using an airy synth patch could lead me to different chords from that of an acoustic or electric guitar, and those chords may give a more haunting type of thing than I would’ve chosen otherwise. While I’d say that between old and new material there is an introspective thread runs through it, it was impossible for me to not be somewhat reactive to the events of the world around me during that time. I think some of that ominous-ness came from the our march towards and into a dystopian future. Additionally, I’ve been listening to a lot of film scores, ambient music and experimental/dark stuff so it’s fair to say that that played a role.
OS: I read that you explored different tunings for the newest albums, I was wondering if you might be willing to talk about any of the tunings in particular that you found inspiration in.
RM: I didn’t explore new tunings for this album! I’m glad it sounded that way, though. I’ve played in C standard for almost all the records. I did however use a capo for a bunch of the songs, so maybe that’s what made it sound different.
OS: Overall, the band constantly achieves very unique guitar tones. Are there any pedals, patches, etc. that have fueled or inspired certain songs or albums?
RM: For the All Fiction sessions, I used a lot of Electronic Audio Experiments pedals – they also built the Mirror House, I used their boost pretty heavily on “Poisons.” I also used Fairfield Circuitry’s “Shallow Water” for warbly sounds which are kind of all over the record. Also, the Electro Harmonix micro POG definitely inspired the “Prom Song” solo.
OS: What is your typical composition process? Are songs usually composed as a group unit or brought to the table by a singular member?
RM: I usually work on them alone and then bring them to the group. The group dynamic can end up reshaping them in a spectrum of ways from subtly to very dramatically.
OS: There are a lot of hot button issues in the music industry today- from overpriced concert tickets, to taxed merch, low streaming profit margins, gear increasingly getting stolen on tours and more. You’ve been back on the road recently- what’s it like touring in this post-pandemic atmosphere?
RM: Financially, it’s a challenge. We were fortunate on this last run in that we were able to come home with some money but the price of everything else has increased so dramatically that once used to be enough money to get by, no longer is. Room costs have increased, garment prices have increased, LP manufacturing costs have increased, fewer people coming to shows, etc. But I will say that even with fewer attendants at shows, we sold more merch on this trip than our album tour in 2019. I’m trying to pay attention to how things have changed and what we can do to keep things sustainable for us as a group.
OS: You were inspired by the music of Portishead and Aphex Twin when writing the newest material. Is there any rock or guitar forward music that still inspires you?
RM: I’ve enjoyed listening to Bill Orcutt, Blonde Redhead, Mount Eerie, and Low. I’m hoping to dig a little deeper and find some new music this winter.
OS: You’ve been releasing music at a very prolific rate as of late. What does 2024 look like for the band? Can we expect more new music?
RM: We’ll be releasing an EP on January 5th or 2024 that’s called “Hot Air Balloon EP.” It’s 5 additional tracks from the All Fiction sessions. We may do some touring in spring of 2024 and we’ll be tracking a new record in fall of 2024.